Tag Archives: Alison Morton

Charmed by Charroux

Half past eleven on a warm Wednesday night in the depths of the Charente countryside. I’m on my bike, racing down a dark lane, acorns crunching under my tyres. Tarmac gives way to a narrow track, alternately stony and muddy. Shapes lurk just outside the halo of my battery light.

I hear heavy breathing behind the hedge.

It’s just the cows, I tell myself, and giggle out loud. Then I hit a bump and my lamp flies off the handlebars.

Bugger. I wince at my screeching brakes. The heavy breathing turns into a flurry of galloping hooves, and silence reigns. I turn to see a sorry pinpoint of light lying in a bed of nettles twenty feet behind me. I giggle again.

It all seems excessively funny. I suppose it would: I’ve just left the merry opening meal of the Charroux literary festival and I’m (very slightly) drunk. Not just on wine. I’m drunk on delight at seeing the writers from last year’s St. Clementin literary festival. I’m drunk on the freedom of being a solitary camper in a farmer’s field. And, more than anything, I’m drunk on the prospect of three days of literary inspiration.

DSCN2509Kate and Christine, the Verteuil Verse team, have made a great choice of authors for this inaugural event. Kate Mosse (Labyrinth) is headlining the festival.

The authors listen to each other’s talks, demonstrating how even bestselling writers can learn something from their colleagues. Have Verteuil Verse chosen the authors for their generosity, or is it the convivial atmosphere of the festival that makes it so easy to have a cup of tea and chat with the literary icons?

Most surprising is how each session is completely different. Exquisite fiction writer Isabel Ashdown (Glasshopper) makes our hearts sing with her settings. Crime queen Elizabeth Haynes (Into the Darkest Corner) is a thoughtful, romantic sweetie. She’s the last person you’d expect to write about decomposing bodies. She tells us how her seven years as an intelligence analyst in the police force have influenced her writing, and goes on to share a crime panel with Roma Nova expert Alison Morton and organiser Christine Collette. The session soon becomes a fascinating open discussion about moral dilemmas and Goodies v Baddies.

This relaxed atmosphere is at the heart of the festival, where our love of stories brings writers and readers together on an equal footing. Kate Mosse shares the history of the Languedoc with her spellbound public. Jacqui Lofthouse (Bluethroat Morning) inspires us to use art as a basis for writing, and chairs a useful writers’ networking session in which we get to talk to each other about our own projects. Barry Walsh (The Pimlico Kid) gives an insight into mixing memory and imagination, regularly entertaining us with his theories – such as how your preferred seat in a train can reveal your approach to writing.

On Thursday evening Diana Morgan-Hill (Love and Justice) ends the author talks with engaging readings from her memoir. And Sarah Harrison (The Flowers of the Field) rounds off Friday evening with stand up comedy as she reels off anecdotes from her writing and broadcasting career.

Jacqui Lofthouse & Alison Morton

Jacqui Lofthouse & Alison Morton

Between sessions I chat to other festival-goers at the bookshop or in the Hope charity refreshments marquee. Lots of faces are vaguely familiar. That’s part of the fun of being foreigners in France. Now they’ve reminded me of their names (once again), I’m confident I’ll remember them next time we meet.

It’s impossible to participate in all the events, which include bookmaking, short story critiquing, theatre skills and the art of translation. Gordon and Jocelyn Simms, the lovely couple who organise the St.Clementin literary festival, are able to relax and enjoy things this time – although they are running the poetry & playwriting workshops.

By 7pm I’m exhausted (nothing to do with the hangover). After a 20-minute cycle ride along the muddy track, over the footbridge and up the long, steep hill to my campsite (I don’t remember that bit from Wednesday night), I collapse in front of my tent. At half past nine I’m sprawled over my camping mat, zips closed, listening to the screech of owls and thinking back over all the wise words I’ve heard.

I hear a strange, breathless grunting beside my tent.

I’m not as amused as on Wednesday night. I peek outside.

There are no lights in sight. But I’m not alone. Although there aren’t any other tents, there is a cluster of animal shadows around me. The grunting begins again and climaxes in a recognisable braying. Not the flashers / rapists / murderers from Elizabeth Haynes’ stories. Just donkeys.

I zip up the tent and wonder who I can persuade to camp with me next time.

***

Many thanks to Kate Britten, Christine Collette and their team of volunteers. You made the first Charroux festival a wholly enjoyable occasion.

 

An Arty Business

The highlight of my last week – besides rediscovering that the sun can be hot – was a writing workshop in the Deux-Sèvres with lovely Michèle Roberts. She’s half French and half English, which makes her particularly interesting to us Francophiles. As well as her understanding of cultural differences, particularly in literature, she is warm, generous and encouraging. We love her! Many thanks to Gordon and Jocelyn Simms for organising the day.

English literary events in my part of France are rare, so it was intriguing to meet the participating writers. What a friendly bunch they were. I could have chatted to them all day. But the call of the pen meant we had to sit down and actually write. Some rebels carried on conversations by passing notes, though I’m not sure this counted as a workshop activity.

Luckily, our pens didn’t accompany us to lunch, which meant I was able to have a long chat with successful self-published author Alison Morton. Her business sense impressed me. And it got me thinking…

rosé

Back with French friends that evening, I met my opponent-in-war (see my blog post The Novel War). And made the mistake of telling him about my inspiring day.

“Hmm,” he said. “Trust you Brits to turn art into business.”

And so began a delightful evening – in a rather less supportive atmosphere than Michèle’s workshop.

We drew our swords: should writing be treated as a business and marketed to readers? Or should it remain an art form and sleep in a notebook?

He claimed it is enough to create art; that art is about expressing yourself. He said that if you create to sell, your creations are no longer sincere. Artists create for themselves. They don’t care whether they sell their work or not.

I thought about the joy of writing family memoirs; the comfort of a journal; the pleasure of finding exactly the right image to convey an emotion; the satisfaction in perfecting a short story or a poem, knowing that it will never be published. I thought about unpaid bloggers. And finally I thought about the dreaded synopses, covering letters, blurbs and social media.

Many glasses of rosé later, we were no closer to a compromise.

*

The question of whether to write for ourselves or to write for a market is one that haunts me. Some experts advise writing with a particular market in mind. Others tell you to write whatever comes naturally.

When my moody teenagers were yelling babes*, I took part-time parental leave (thank you France) so that I could change their nappies myself every afternoon. Oh yes: and so I could write during their siestas. I wanted to write myself a proper novel without making all the mistakes I’d made in novel Zero. I had no thought of a market. I knew I could write a novel because I’d already done it. But novel Zero was tightly plotted and planned and hadn’t left enough room for creativity. So I wanted to write a novel organically; to begin with a character and let the story grow.

“Don’t worry,” I told my partner. “I just need to get this writing thing out of my system. Then I’ll go back to full time project management, the kids can go to school and we’ll get the car mended.”

Between drafts of my organic novel ‘Tree Magic’ (to be published in January 2017 by Impress Books), I started to write commissioned feature articles. This meant I had no time for my novel. But it didn’t matter: feature writing was so fulfilling. I met people, my work was read (even if nobody actually looked at my name) and I was being paid.

Then, one day, a French friend said, “This magazine writing is all very well. But don’t forget about what you really want to write.” I interpreted this as: ‘don’t let business stand in the way of art’.

A few months later I went back to my fiction. The dishwasher broke down and didn’t get mended.

*

Although Michèle Roberts talked about the differences between the French and British approaches to literature, we didn’t have time to distil our thoughts down to Art versus Business. But I do feel that, for many French people, art is superior to business: whereas – dare I say it – the Anglo-Saxon culture celebrates business achievements.

I concluded my rosé-tinted evening with the thought that we need Art for personal expression and Business to buy time for that personal expression. Who can blame writers for trying to do both at the same time?

 

 

*I actually love my children to bits! They’re never moody and they never yelled. Well, not much.